Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday 29 July 2012

Twitter joke trial - conviction quashed in High Court

The origins of this case go back 2 1/2 years when a man, Paul Chambers, posted a message on Twitter which read: "Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!" in relation to the closure of Robin Hood Airport in January 2010 because of adverse weather conditions. Paul Chambers had been intending to fly to Northern Ireland to meet someone he had earlier 'met' through exchanges on Twitter. No-one amongst followers who read the message soon after it was posted seems to have found the message alarming in any way, they treated it as a joke. This happened on 6th January 2010; five days later on 11th January an off-duty security employee of the airport was apparently searching at home for any mention of 'Robin Hood Airport' on Twitter and came across the 'offending' tweet and although he thought it was just a joke he reported it to his 'line manager' who thought likewise, but 'in accordance with procedure' reported it to the airport police who thought likewise also, again 'in accordance with procedure' reported it to South Yorkshire Police who, on balance, thought likewise (that it was a joke and not a credible threat, just to drive the point home), after however arresting Mr Chambers and interrogating him. Next the matter was referred by South Yorkshire Police to the CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) who decided there was a case to answer. As a result Mr Chambers was charged, prosecuted and convicted at a Magistrates Court with the conviction later upheld on appeal before Doncaster Crown Court in March 2011.

The High Court has now overturned the conviction (read the full judgement of the High Court here (.pdf file)), basically because there was no criminal intention or act - in other words it was a joke.

I remember hearing about this case soon after Mr Chambers was arrested in January 2010 and thought the whole idea of him being arrested was completely ridiculous and indeed a 'joke', although of course no joke for Mr Chambers who lost his job and effectively became unemployable.

No-one involved in investigating this case, at whatever level, seems seriously to have believed that the offending tweet was anything but a joke, perhaps in poor taste, but a joke nonetheless. Nevertheless the jobsworth mentality involved in following processes dictated by 'in accordance with procedure' meant that in order for those involved to protect their own backs (read the linked article on 'jobsworth' for more on this) they had to report it on up the chain, even though none of them thought there was any credible threat or risk. Indeed in the High Court deliberations the point was made that even after the relevant tweet was noticed by the off-duty airport security employee there was no evidence of any increase in the 'threat alert' at the airport or indeed that any other action was taken at the airport as a result of the tweet. So, all these jobsworths did what the rules said they had to do, this includes the CPS, just in case, one supposes, anything untoward did occur they could not later be held to have overlooked their duties.

Until of course the High Court comes along and, rightly, concludes that Mr Chambers had contravened no law so had no case to answer.

I'm afraid I must also introduce an element of raw partisan politics into this murky affair, because this touches directly upon the freedom of expression of all of us - as is pointed out here, a climate of fear grew up (and was actively fostered by the Labour government by their deeds and actions, as exemplified by the reference to Home Office advice in the linked article, not to mention the Labour supporter being physically ejected from a Labour Party conference for heckling, which I wrote about here) which led many people to worry unnecessarily about saying what is in their minds - not just the usual and sensible prohibition on shouting "Fire!" in a crowded public place when there is not in fact a fire (or saying at the airport check-in "I have a bomb in my bag" for a joke, as another example). The quashing of Mr Chambers' conviction goes a little way toward re-establishing freedom of expression in this country! And perhaps will allow Mr Chambers to get a job, too.

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